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It sounded like the old days in Wilson on Wednesday.
Tobacco buyers called out bids as they walked along bales of tobacco with growers keenly listening to prices at a pair of auctions.
The live auction, the primary means of selling tobacco for more than a century, has been a rare format ever since the tobacco buyout in 2004.
Today, about 92 percent of tobacco sold in the country is under contract, but the remainder is sold in a nontraditional market, usually in a silent auction format.
American Tobacco Exchange Inc. and Horizon Ltd. both held live auctions Wednesday.
Tommy Faulkner of American Tobacco Exchange said the sales are held at the request of both growers and buyers wanting a live auction in Wilson.
“They seem to like that and the growers seemed to like it better,” Faulkner said. “It was the old original-type thing.”
American had more than 400 bales for sale while Horizon sold about 350 bales.
“We are just really excited to bring the live auction back to Wilson,” said Rhonda Harrington of Wilson, owner of American Tobacco Exchange Inc.
The tobacco market was established in Wilson in 1890 with an auction.
“We feel like this live auction is still a necessary part of the industry,” Faulkner said. “Even with the contracting, there’s a certain segment of this tobacco and growers and some buyers that need a place to get together that’s not on the contract. You’ve got smaller companies and tobacco that won’t fit on contracts, so we just feel excited to bring it back.”
Faulkner said the live auction is a viable way for farmers to sell tobacco.
“You’ve got a 400 million-pound crop, so 5 percent would be 20 million pounds,” Faulkner said. “It’s a small percentage, (but) it’s still a pretty good amount of tobacco that people need a way to sell it.”
Wilson remains the epicenter of tobacco industry sales.
“Wilson always was the biggest, greatest market and the tobacco has filtered back even through all the changes with contracting,” Fauklner said. “Wilson is still the center of the tobacco industry as far as marketing. Two-thirds of the tobacco in the United States in grown in five counties around here, so you are in the heart.”
Gary Perry of Goldsboro, came with 90 bales to sell.
“I think the live auction will be better for the farmer,” Perry said. “Seems like when you have got a silent auction there is more finagling going on behind the scenes. It shows the farmer exactly what it’s going to bring. In a live auction, you know exactly where you stand, who your competition is and what you’ve got to pay to get it.”
On Wednesday, buyers walked along as an auctioneer called out prices ranging from $1 to $2 per pound.
Merion Haskins, owner of South Central Leaf, came from Campbellsville, Kentucky to buy tobacco at the auction.
“It’s kind of seeing it come back a little bit,” said Haskins, who grew up attending live auctions. “The difference is that the growers actually can see the buyers here and who’s buying the tobacco. In the silent auction, they don’t know who’s buying the tobacco until they tell them.”
Willie Earl Tart, a grower from Dunn, didn’t bring any tobacco, but came to see the auction and make sure everything was up to par before bring some of his 650 acres of tobacco to market.
Half of his leaf is under contract, and half will be sold at auction.
“I like live auction,” Tart said. “You can see what’s happening. All of the growers are in. There is more competition. Competition is better for it.”
Don Murray, a grower from Snow Hill who had 175 acres of tobacco this year, didn’t bring any of his leaf to sell but came to see the auction anyway.
“It’s been so long that I have seen one,” Murray said. “I actually wanted to see a live auction and kind of tell the way things were going before I brought any. I think it will get better and I do like the open auction versus the silent auction all day long.”
Murray pointed to competition as helping prices.
“You know what your ‘bacca brings at that time. With the silent action, the next day a man calls you and says ‘This is what they bought,’ Murray said.
“I just like the open auction versus the silent auction. I know what my ‘bacca brought on that day at that time. And I can tell who’s buying my ‘bacca. That’s what appeals to me about it.”
About 95 percent of the tobacco Murray grew this year is under contract.
“If we have any extra, we’ll bring it here and if we have some tobacco the contractor doesn’t want, we’ll bring it here,” Murray said. “It gives us an option to get rid of that tobacco. Contract is fine if you’ve got good tobacco, but it you’ve got ‘bacco they don’t want, it gives you a place to sell it. Tobacco has definitely changed over the years. That’s for sure.”